as a member of a co-operative community. She did not try to ‘get the better of her fellow-hosts by snatching little advantages or cleverly evading her just contributions; she was not inclined to be boring or snobbish in the way of personal reminiscence. She played a fair game of bridge, and her card-room manners were irreproachable. But wherever she came in contact with her own sex the light of battle kindled at once; her talent for arousing animosity seemed to border on positive genius.

Whether the object of her attentions was thick-skinned or sensitive, quick-tempered or good-natured, Mrs Pentherby managed to achieve the same effect. She exposed little weaknesses, she prodded sore places, she snubbed enthusiasms, she was generally right in a matter of argument, or, if wrong, she somehow contrived to make her adversary appear foolish and opinionated. She did, and said, horrible things in a matter-of-fact innocent way, and she did, and said, matter-of-fact innocent things in a horrible way. In short, the unanimous feminine verdict on her was that she was objectionable.

There was no question of taking sides, as the Major had anticipated; in fact, dislike of Mrs Pentherby was almost a bond of union between the other women, and more than one threatening disagreement had been rapidly dissipated by her obvious and malicious attempts to inflame and extend it; and the most irritating thing about her was her successful assumption of unruffled composure at moments when the tempers of her adversaries were with difficulty kept under control. She made her most scathing remarks in the tone of a tube conductor announcing that the next station is Brompton Road—the measured, listless tone of one who knows he is right, but is utterly indifferent to the fact that he proclaims.

On one occasion Mrs Val Gwepton, who was not blessed with the most reposeful of temperaments, fairly let herself go, and gave Mrs Pentherby a vivid and truthful résumé of her opinion of her. The object of this unpent storm of accumulated animosity waited patiently for a lull, and then remarked quietly to the angry little woman—

‘And now, my dear Mrs Gwepton, let me tell you something that I’ve been wanting to say for the last two or three minutes, only you wouldn’t give me a chance; you’ve got a hairpin dropping out on the left side. You thin-haired women always find it difficult to keep your hairpins in.’

‘What can one do with a woman like that?’ Mrs Val demanded afterwards of a sympathizing audience.

Of course, Reggie received numerous hints as to the unpopularity of this jarring personality. His sister- in-law openly tackled him on the subject of her many enormities. Reggie listened with the attenuated regret that one bestows on an earthquake disaster in Bolivia or a crop failure in Eastern Turkestan, events which seem so distant that one can almost persuade oneself they haven’t happened.

‘That woman has got some hold over him,’ opined his sister-in-law darkly; ‘either she is helping him to finance the show, and presumes on the fact, or else, which Heaven forbid, he’s got some queer infatuation for her. Men do take the most extraordinary fancies.’

Matters never came exactly to a crisis. Mrs Pentherby, as a source of personal offence, spread herself over so wide an area that no one woman of the party felt impelled to rise up and declare that she absolutely refused to stay another week in the same house with her. What is everybody’s tragedy is nobody’s tragedy. There was ever a certain consolation in comparing notes as to specific acts of offence. Reggie’s sister- in-law had the added interest of trying to discover the secret bond which blunted his condemnation of Mrs Pentherby’s long catalogue of misdeeds. There was little to go on from his manner towards her in public, but he remained obstinately unimpressed by anything that was said against her in private.

With the one exception of Mrs Pentherby’s unpopularity, the house-party scheme was a success on its first trial, and there was no difficulty about reconstructing it on the same lines for another winter session. It so happened that most of the women of the party, and two or three of the men, would not be available on this occasion, but Reggie had laid his plans well ahead and booked plenty of ‘fresh blood’ for the new departure. It would be, if anything, rather a larger party than before.

  By PanEris using Melati.

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